The narrow dusty road rounded precariously, hugging the hillside and looking deep down into a precipice. It was cut through a gigantic rock, the overhang barely clearing the roof of the SUV. The encircling hills were a patchwork of green and brown trees and scrub; this one was rocky, flaunting an astonishing array of earth colours. Strong intermittent winds howled, kicking up dust and occasionally pelting granules. It was spectacularly deserted, we hadn’t encountered a soul for several kilometres.
The path to Benreu, a tiny, remote mountain village in Nagaland’s south-western Peren district, was eventful and full of drama. The area’s pristine beauty is still largely hidden from the outside world, known only to certain kinds of travellers, and the road, if it could be called that, was a mere suggestion. As we headed out of Kohima after breakfast that late February morning, the journey began effortlessly. A metalled road dipped and crested through undulating topography. Clusters of gable-roofed houses, perched perilously on hillsides, gave way to lush green forests and carpeted grasslands interspersed with emerald-green paddy fields.
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Soon, though, the metalled road gave way to a muddy one. It was bumpy, dusty, filled with protruding rocks that sometimes launched the vehicle a foot or more into the air. But discomfort took a back seat for there wasn’t a dull moment. We crossed babbling brooks and rushing streams on pretty slatted bridges, gazed at strange and mesmerising rock formations, whizzed past hamlets and habitations, swept through picture-postcard villages such as Khonoma (India’s first green village) and Dzuleke (literally, village of the underground river), and marvelled at the towering green-blue range of hills and mountains that rose to the sky. Khonoma and the 20 sq. km around it became a tragopan sanctuary in 1998, the country’s first community-led conservation project; today it’s a plastic-free zone and has adopted several sustainability practices. Even the scary road that clutched the hillside pumped up the adrenaline. Finally, when the vehicle swung into a clearing with colourful totem poles on the edge of Benreu, the land of Zeliangs, a Naga tribe, we had been on the bone-rattling road for over four hours, traversing a distance of a mere 65km.
The late afternoon light cast a glorious golden glow on the village, laid out in peculiar fashion. Houses stacked on hillsides sloped down into the well of a basin which formed the village centre. Overlooking all this was a set of three peaks that stood like silent sentinels, the last—Mount Pauna—more brooding than the rest. “That’s where the spirit of Mireuding lives and guards the village. He comes from time to time on a spaceship with a bright headlight,” said M. Devi, my guide. The comment was delivered sotto voce.
Startled, I looked at him to see if he was joking; he couldn’t have been more earnest. I had heard vague stories about Pauna but hadn’t paid much attention. Now it seemed all too real. The stories only got more bizarre, with tales of spirits, mythical creatures and legends that challenged belief.
I longed to stretch my legs. A narrow winding set of stone steps led steeply down from the clearing to the village centre, its ceremonial space. On the way, I peered into tiny homes built of wood, and morungs, traditional halls-cum-dormitories where male members once lived but which are now used for community gatherings.
At the base of the steps, the centre was a packed-earth ground the size of a tennis court. There were a couple of shops, sacred Naga monoliths and a set of stone stumps for elders. Every Naga village has a ceremonial village gate: Benreu’s faced Pauna, and a set of steps dropped down almost vertically into a scarily bottomless gorge.
“During festivals and ceremonies, the gate is shut. Outsiders are not allowed. No one can enter or leave, even villagers,” said Haining, my designated village escort. My guide explained it is a purification ritual. Turns out there are many more. He pointed to a long jump pit near the gate and said, “If a woman steps into it, the whole village turns up the next day to purify it.” He wasn’t kidding.
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In the North-East, night falls early and quickly. One moment everything was drenched in the shimmery glow of the golden hour, the next moment it was inky black. An unspoken signal seemed to have been sent for the start of a raucous evening gathering. In a large morung, men and women sat around a blazing fire and launched into a high-pitched song. Several vessels filled with zutho (cloudy home-made rice beer, made by fermenting ground local rice paste) lined one corner. Each person had brought their own mug and filled it up from time to time.
The lilting tune picked up pace and headed to a crescendo. I didn’t understand a word but it held me spellbound. My guide explained that the song was about young love. One song followed another—ritual songs, songs of love and affection, songs for sowing and harvesting, songs about mythical creatures, songs to appease the gods, songs for war and conquest… The martial songs were full-throated and followed a stomping rhythmic beat, with male voices dominating. The love songs, and some others, were soft and melodious, female voices ringing out and filling the high-vaulted roof of the morung. A few songs in, I began to understand the theme by the tempo. No matter what kind of song, though, most of them ended with a startling, high-pitched screech.
All the while, beer mugs were constantly refilled and snacks, such as dried and smoked meat strips, roasted beans and fermented bamboo, passed around. Tipsy villagers were soon dancing around the fire. I couldn’t get past the first sip. The brew was sweet and fruity but had a strong under-taste. I stumbled back to my abode for the night, my head still filled with the music.
After the excesses of the previous night, I was unsure if anyone would turn up in the morning. But Haining and a couple of his compatriots were lounging near my room when I emerged, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It was around 5am, not yet fully dawn, and the sky was a gloomy grey. We set off on the 6km trek to Mount Pauna, the third highest peak in Nagaland at over 2,480m. The path was fairly easy in parts and tough in others, so it took a few hours each way.
Pauna is packed with medicinal plants and herbs, including ginseng, and the air was thick with the heady smell that characterises forests. There were rhododendrons and mountain orchids, mithun (drung ox, gayal; though hunted, it is also sacred for the Nagas) as well as hornbills and tragopan. Pauna is also home to the stingless bee, teliane, which produces the bitter-sour telianedui honey, a Benreu speciality. We didn’t encounter bees but bird calls were constant companions.
So were the stream of stories Haining narrated—of people possessed, animal spirits residing in humans, a mysterious dog head that spurts water, and men with miraculous powers. The more hair-raising ones were reserved for Mireuding, each more fantastic than the last. He fled his mother’s womb and streaked across the sky like a shooting star. His sister Zanile/Janile was his medium, his go-between with the people. But he was an angry spirit: He frequently caught his sister by the hair and flung her around, bashing her head when she refused to listen to him. He was also a benevolent protector, though: He settled on Pauna and promised to safeguard Benreu. He used the herbs on Mount Pauna and would manifest to cure people of various illnesses.
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“Among all the herbs that Pauna has, cailihei is the most powerful. Mireuding used it. It can bring back people from the dead. But nobody knows what it looks like or where it can be found. Only the blessed will know it when they see it,” Haining said, and effortlessly made the leap to the Ramayan. “This is the sanjeevani that Hanuman came in search of to revive Lakshman.”
It was tempting to suspend disbelief. The surroundings, too, imbued everything with a magical touch. All around were thick forests, and the path was covered by jungle canopy in places. A gentle breeze blew through from time to time, the leaves whispering stories of their own. Sunlight fell in dappled patterns, as if sylphs were dancing on the forest floor. It brought to mind scenes of the enchanted forest from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
All too soon, it was time to head back. Surprisingly, the journey was done in silence, each one happy in the company of their own thoughts. I let the stories swirl around me. By the time we reached the village, the sun was almost setting. I sat on the steps leading down to the village, surrounded by silence, and gazed at Pauna. The sun cast its last rays on the peak, lending an ethereal glow. Or was it Mireuding’s spaceship, the one with the single headlight? Clearly, Pauna had cast her spell on me.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.